How did these towns in the Central Valley get their name?

FRESNO, Calif. (KSEE/KGPE) — The Central Valley is full of unique places — and their names only add to the sense of intrigue. From Merced in the north, Fresno in the middle and Porterville in the south – how did these places get their name?

The locations chosen are those with a population of over 60,000 as established by the US Census. Going from north to south, we start with Merced.


The name Merced has a Spanish origin. According to the Merced House, the name comes from the Merced River – which was originally called “El Rio de Nuestra Senora de la Mercedes”. The English translation of the name of this river is River of Our Lady of Mercy. The name Merced comes from there. also states that the surname “Merced” comes from the same origin: the short form of the name María De La Merced.


The name Madera, according to the California State Counties Association, comes from the Spanish word for wood. The town became known as Madera after the California Lumber Company built a canal to transport lumber to the area railroad in the late 1800s.


Fresno is the region’s largest city with approximately 500,000 residents. Like Merced and Madera, the name of the city also derives from the Spanish language. According to Visit Fresno County, the name Fresno translates to “ash tree” in Spanish (and the ash tree also appears on the city’s flag). The inspiration apparently came from the large number of ash trees that lined the San Joaquin River in what is now Fresno County.


The name Clovis does not derive from a Spanish language word, but is rather the first name of the man who sold land that would go on to found the town. Clovis M. Cole purchased land in 1880 to grow grain for fodder and seed. Cole sold most of the land to make way for the new railroad and depot to allow locally grown grain to be shipped out of the Central Valley. When the city was founded, it was named after Clovis Cole.


Visalia’s name refers to one of its first settlers: Nathaniel Vise. The name comes from Vise’s ancestral home, Visalia, Kentucky, where Vise is from. Vise also owned a restaurant in San Francisco where he advertised as “Nat Vise, aka The Bear Hunter”.


Tulare takes its name from Lake Tulare, once one of the largest freshwater lakes west of the Great Lakes (the lake was later drained for agricultural development). The name Tulare comes from the tule plant (schoenoplectus acutus) that once lined the shores of Lake Tulare.


Porterville’s name comes from Royal Porter Putman, who arrived in the area in 1860 to raise cattle, horses and hogs. He bought 40 acres of land and became the owner of a store and a train depot. He named both after himself – but used his middle name, hence Porter’s Station and Porter’s Trading Post. He was instrumental in the design of the town, which led to the community being called “Portersville”. However, maps from 1900 removed the “s” and referred to the town as Porterville.